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The headlines will say that Mamata Banerjee won massively in West Bengal despite a strong challenge from the resource-rich BJP; the Left Democratic Front in Kerala made history by sweeping the state for the second time running; the DMK trounced the hapless AIADMK in Tamil Nadu; the BJP-led Front retained Assam despite undercurrents of anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) feelings among the Assamese; and the Congress lost Puducherry to a front supported by the BJP.

Two things are clear. One, the Congress is the loser here, with the few gains it made in Tamil Nadu coming because it hitched its fortunes to the right horse. It lost Kerala and Puducherry badly, and also Assam, not to speak of its Muslim-majority strongholds in West Bengal. Two, the BJP has lost face in West Bengal, falling victim to its own hype and hubris.

The three big winners in this round of polls are Mamata Banerjee, Pinarayi Vijayan and Himanta Biswa Sarma. The DMK’s M.K. Stalin is also a winner, but E. Palaniswami, the losing AIADMK chief minister, has not been humbled.

Mamata’s triumph is the biggest, clearly, for it defied all forecasts, and will now galvanize anti-BJP parties all over the country.

However, we must also note the subterranean factors that enabled these outcomes. Here’s what we know.

One, local leadership matters. The BJP did not have one. The state voted for Banerjee after mauling her party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Unless national parties have credible local leaders, parties with stronger local faces have an advantage. This is why Sarma got the BJP front victory in Assam.

Two, in the age of TV, personality also matters. This is why Pinarayi Vijayan pulled off a historic second win for the LDF—a state noted for switching from one front to another every time. Contrast this with how the Left has fared in West Bengal, where it was wiped out even in alliance with the Congress and the mislabelled Secular Front of India, led by an Islamic cleric.

Three, the women’s vote is consistently underestimated. This happened in Bihar, when the RJD alliance was seen to be ahead, but Nitish Kumar’s high acceptance among silent women voters got him across the halfway mark, no doubt in alliance with the BJP. In West Bengal, the women’s vote went to Mamata by a large margin, and the DMK’s inability to completely rout the AIADMK was probably because the late J. Jayalalitha’s appeal among women stayed substantially intact. Vijayan won with a large support of female voters, who appreciated the state’s free food distribution during the covid lockdowns. Clearly, pre-poll surveys and exit polls need to focus on getting the women’s mood right.

Four, and most important, polarization is a fact of life. The West Bengal vote swung decisively in favour of Didi because Muslims tilted tactically towards her party to keep the BJP out. The Hindu vote did not consolidate behind BJP. In Kerala, the LDF won most probably because the Congress’s Hindu base saw the LDF as a better option than the BJP.

For the BJP, the dilemma is simple: Will it do better by literally adopting a more centrist political position, or by moving more strongly to the right to embrace its Hindu identity? Its failure in Bengal may be the result of not ensuring a higher level of Hindu consolidation in Bengal, where a fear of demographic change is high among some sections of people. Contrast this with Assam, where the minority vote as a proportion of the total is even higher than in West Bengal, but Sarma got significant chunks of the Assamese and Bengali Hindu vote, apart from some smaller subaltern groups, by invoking the fear of power shifting to Badruddin Ajmal. The subtext was: Don’t let Assam be ruled by a minority leader who benefited from the demographic changes of the last several decades. This is a significant turnaround from the state’s situation last year, when Assam was in the throes of anti-CAA protests, threatening the BJP’s base.

Looking into the crystal ball and the likely impact of these elections on national politics, here is what it seems.

India’s opposition parties will draw hope from Mamata’s win, but attempts to project her as a national alternative may not work for the same reason that the BJP’s national focus did not help it in Bengal. Mamata will not have it easy in Bengal either, given that the BJP now has a big assembly presence.

The BJP’s Sarma is the new political power not only in the north-east, but in the national party, for he has crafted a covert Hindu consolidation strategy that worked.

The AIADMK will consolidate forces around the current double-barrel leadership of outgoing chief minister E. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam. Jaya’s colleague and close friend V.K. Sasikala’s faction cannot hope to regain salience, given the drubbing received by her nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran.

The big take-outs of these state elections? Polarization and other such factors can’t be wished away, but performance also matters. Mamata, Vijayan and Sarma did well because they delivered benefits to people, especially in a crisis. Palaniswami and Panneerselvam did not do too badly for the same reason.

And yes, the BJP needs to deliver on covid if it wants to win Uttar Pradesh in 2022 and the general elections in 2024. Good governance and an overarching political message work well in combination. The party failed to do that in Bengal.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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